Perry Mason and the Case for Redemption

Robert Hubbard

Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for HBO’s Perry Mason.

In the final episode of Perry Mason, the title character shares a clandestine conversation about faith with disgraced radio evangelist Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany). Mason (Matthew Rhys) has tracked down Sister Alice after she fled into hiding following her controversial attempt to resurrect a murdered toddler. (Yes, you read that sentence correctly.) “You really do want to believe in him, don’t you?” Sister Alice asks Mason, referring to God. “No matter how hard you try, you still hope that he’s there.”

This short exchange between two authentic yet profoundly flawed characters captures a key aspect of HBO’s gritty retake on the wholesome television series, which originally ran from 1957 to 1966. From deep within the crime-infested, corrupt, and seedy underbelly of 1930s Los Angeles, our titular character gradually transforms from a damaged and disconnected reprobate into an improbable agent of justice and reconciliation. Much like God’s whole creation, Perry Mason groans for redemption.

To be clear, this is not your parents (or grandparents) Perry Mason. When we first meet Rhys’ Mason, he isn’t even a lawyer yet. He’s a hard-drinking, divorced, shell of a man eking out a morally compromised living as a private investigator. Among other questionable acts, he photographs celebrities having affairs and steals a dead body from the morgue. As we learn through a series of flashbacks, a haunting history in the trenches of World War I weighs heavily upon him. In their contentious first meeting in Episode 3, Sister Alice assures Mason that “God is with your work.” As quick as a rifle shot, Mason replies, “God left me in France, Sister.”

But even in his debauchery and faithlessness, shards of decency escape from Mason’s suffering soul. Somewhere in the sad eyes of Rhys’ detached performance lurks a caring man who, like Christ, has a heart for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Della Street (Juliet Rylance), Mason’s eventual secretary and conscience, recognizes this. Sensing his potential, Della rebukes, “I find it offensive that you chose to mask your intelligence and decency with cynicism and slothfulness.”

Almost against his will, Della’s positive influence spurs Mason “toward love and good deeds.” He improbably passes the bar exam so that he can defend a desperate client accused of murdering her own child (Gayle Rankin), since nobody else will. Mason works tirelessly on the case, agonizing over each setback with righteous fury. When, in Episode 7, a potential witness asks, “What kind of man are you, Mr. Mason?,” Mason replies, “A piss-poor one, if I were to be honest. Let's just say I'm trying to make up for it.”

By the series finale, Mason nearly does. He drinks less, he restores his frayed personal relationships, and—most impressively—he transforms himself from a tongue-tied and insecure lawyer to a brilliant litigator charismatic enough to give Raymond Burr a run for his money. Compared to when we first meet him, Mason seems redeemed.

Much like God’s whole creation, Perry Mason groans for redemption.​

While Mason may find redemption through his new-found vocation, a case can be made that the show as a whole redeems some of the clichés of the original series. At first glance, redemption may seem like the wrong word considering the wholesome ethos of the 1950s original. Indeed, many of my Christian friends probably prefer the family-friendly predecessor. But in contrast to the 1950s version, this Mason, created by Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, strives for more believable writing. In a hilarious nod to the original, district attorney Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) interrupts a mock trial prep to inform Mason that "no one ever confesses on the stand." This playful allusion to the formulaic trope of the original series forces the pursuit of a more realistic defensive strategy.

Even more significant is the more honest representation of the diversity of Los Angeles that the new series offers. In Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), a character written for a White actor in the original series, we meet a strong Black policeman swimming against the fierce tide of institutional racism in the clannish 1930s LAPD. Likewise, Lupe Gibbs (Veronica Falcon) gifts us with a stereotype-shattering turn as Mason’s sometime love interest. Refreshingly comfortable with her Latina identity, Lupe also remains painfully aware of the restrictions her race places upon her entrepreneurial spirit as an aviator. Through these two complex examples—an African American cop and a Latina pilot—HBO’s Perry Mason transcends the original series by offering redemptive depictions of diversity.

As a whole, Perry Mason mirrors a Christian understanding of redemption as part of God’s majestic pattern of restoration. Despite an imposing stranglehold, the personal and systemic sin resulting from the fall fails to completely prevail. Mason’s perilous pursuit of truth and his quest to defend the most marginalized among us illustrate what Christians might refer to as kingdom work. These unexpected and grace-guided moments of redemption carry the promise of an atonement baked into the creation and delivered to all of us through Jesus Christ.

In this way, Mason’s journey models Colossians 1:13-14, for he is indeed “rescued from the dominion of darkness.” Let us rejoice in the promise that such selfless and restorative actions may eventually usher us, along with this iconic fictional character, “into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Or, to paraphrase Sister Alice, no matter how hard we try, God is still here.

Topics: TV